In layman’s terms, Overtraining Syndrome can be described as the human body’s response to the inability to physically or mentally recover from training. Proper recovery is the basis for all increases in physical performance. For the athlete, overtraining manifests itself as a downward spiral of physical preparedness, athletic performance or motivation. In its most severe cases, the athlete may suffer acute or chronic instances of injury and may quit the sport altogether due to those injuries, frustration or a severe lack of motivation.
For the unwary coach or athlete, the first signs of overtraining may be masked until a real or perceived drop in performance is noticed. The initial reaction to a drop in performance is to increase training duration and intensity. When overtraining syndrome is detected, increased training will have the exact opposite effect on re-establishing prior performance levels. The human body is an amazing piece of machinery. One of its many unique properties is a set of circuit breakers and response mechanisms that give fair warning that things just aren’t right. Sort of like an early warning system to protect athletes from themselves. Here’s a list of signs and symptoms to look for and how you can reverse the fall from grace.
Performance symptoms. One marker is past or current instances of performance levels that may plateau or decrease. A closer look at individual performance characteristics may reveal some clues, but these are symptoms of underlying problems that may be physiological, psychological or biological.
- Year over year performance shows incidents of peaking at mid-season and ending before post-season competition.
- Strength gains may plateau and even drop.
- Decreased biomechanics and motor skills including balance, technique, agility and coordinated movement.
- Performance is limited due to acute or chronic pain during competition.
- Slower performance times or lowered levels and shorter duration of intensity during competition.
- Training is marred with incidents of lowered intensity and recurring injuries.
- Peak performance can only be seen after extended periods of rest and recovery.
- Incidents of total exhaustion and longer recovery times after competition.
Physiological symptoms. There are outward signs that the body is reacting to overtraining. Here are some examples.
- Weight loss. More common in endurance athletes and sports like wrestling and boxing where poor nutrition is part of the sport's culture. Unintended weight loss could mean a reduction in muscle mass, which is never a good thing.
- Increased or decreased resting heart rates. It's more common for overtrained athletes to show increases in resting heart rates, but overtrained endurance athletes may experience resting heart rates that are slower than normal. The best time to test your resting heart rate is immediately after waking up in the morning.
- Decreased aerobic, anaerobic and lactate thresholds. You may notice this from the top down, with lower lactate thresholds and shorter intensity durations. But your aerobic baseline fitness level may be the cause as it's the basis of the body's GPP (General Physical Preparedness). Overtraining the aerobic energy pathway can cause lower anaerobic and lactate thresholds.
- Muscular fatigue and weakness. Lower lactate thresholds bring on muscle fatigue faster, while muscle weakness can be the result of shrinking muscle mass.
- Acute or chronic joint, ligament and muscle pain and soreness. Microtears in muscle tissue and inflammation are unavoidable in everyday activities as well as training and competition. Pain and swelling symptoms are not always present, but can silently lower strength and performance levels.
- Lowered immune system response. It has already been documented that extended periods of intense training lowers the body's immune system response. Intense training increases levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which is known to suppress the immune system.
- Loss of muscle mass. Muscle requires coordinated periods of rest to repair itself and proper nutrition to increase tissue formation. Take either rest or proper nutrition away and you will eventually cannibalize muscle.
Psychological symptoms. Acute or chronic incidents of depression and lack of motivation show up in a wide range of symptoms that may include one or more of the following.
- Increased frustration over performance and loss of confidence.
- Increased irritability.
- Lowered self-esteem.
- Thoughts of quitting.
Biological symptoms. The human body is loaded with chemical and biological responses and circuit breakers. Here are some of the chemical reactions that take place when overtraining sets in.
- Lowered ATP due to lack of muscle glycogen stores.
- Increases in the production of the stress hormone, cortisol.
- Increased white blood count (evidence of infection or lowered immune system).
- Dehydration affects blood viscosity, proper organ function, distribution of nutrients and a rat's nest of other problems. Lowered sweat levels mask diversion of fluids to cool and protect vital organs.
Fighting your way back - the three R's of recovery. The next 3 steps are some examples of possible recovery methods.
Static recovery method. The most common and easiest method to implement. It has three parts.
- Rest. And I mean total rest. Not only is rest needed for recovery in the shortest training cycles (3 to 7 days), but longer terms of rest are needed depending on the sport, the intensity of the training and level of competition. Your body needs time to heal from the physical damage done during training (micro muscle tears and inflammation), lowered immune system response and the emotional pressures of competition.
- Refuel. Protein is the building block needed to fuel muscle growth and maintenance. Carbohydrates are the only way to replace glycogen stores. Rest alone will not replace glycogen. Proper nutrition strategies vary from sport to sport and are easily available on many reputable websites like the USDA. Find the nutrition regimen that's right for you and follow it to a tee.
- Re-hydrate. Even before the initial onset of thirst begins, you're already dehydrated. A dehydration level of just 2% can drop performance 10% or more. Dehydration can affect the transfer of nutrients and oxygen to cells, the function of vital organs and the regulation of body temperature. You cannot fully recover from intense training without adequate water in the cells. Water is fine for slight dehydration, but a sport drink containing salt and carbohydrates is needed when training intensity calls for electrolyte replacement.
Tapering. Tapered training is a recovery mechanism used before the post season or key competitions to help athletes rest up and reduce inflammation, muscle soreness and increase glycogen stores. It can even help raise lactate thresholds by allowing the body to build up its fuel burning cells known as mitochondria. One form of tapered training uses a systematic reduction in training duration or intensity (between 20 and 50% of max) or both. Still another form uses very high intensity with shorter duration.
Periodization. First used in ancient Greece and perfected in the former Soviet Union, periodization training is designed to continuously stimulate performance gains with varying routines, intensities and duration. Many periodization training protocols start from the bottom up with an aerobic cycle; followed by increases in training intensity and duration and ending with sport specific training technique. The Russians and Eastern Bloc countries, however, did the most detailed research and had the most success using a periodization system that started with a sport specific training and technique phase followed by an aerobic and anaerobic fitness and strength training phase.
There are numerous other signs of overtraining, but the ones I’ve listed here are the most common ones I’ve seen and some of them I have experienced firsthand during my athletic participation and coaching experience over the last 30 years. Always consult your health professional, coach, trainer or parent if you experience symptoms of overtraining and before you attempt to adopt any recovery method.
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